Mike Mangione talks with C&I about the making of But I’ve Seen the Stars and playing “orchestral folk.”

Mike Mangione & The Kin’s new album, But I’ve Seen the Stars, is a shining example of grounded bluesy folk with indie undertones — filled with songs driven by gritty electric guitars, orchestral violins, and melodic harmonies. It’s a refreshing blend of different genres, enjoyable for most every type of music listener.

Helmed by Mike Mangione (vocals, guitar, percussion, songwriting) with his brother Thomas (electric guitar), the band also includes Monique Ross (cello) and her sister Chauntee (violin) of SistaStrings and features Josh Collazo and Seth Ford-Young of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Put all that “kin” together on But I’ve Seen the Stars, and you get a wide variety of versatile talent with a great fresh sound.

Founding band member Mike Mangione recently talked with C&I about traveling, songwriting, and the new album.

Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get from your new album, But I’ve Seen the Stars?
Mike Mangione: A journey. I’d like the album to take the listener somewhere outside of themselves [or] inside of themselves. Everything from the artwork to the instrumentation to the songs to the sequencing was meant to take you on a journey. Where it leads, I am not sure.

C&I: Where did you gain inspiration for this album and how do you think it stands out from your other work?
Mangione: My inspiration is always the human mystery. Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? Every story or metaphor or statement is meant to reflect on our shared experience of what it means to be human. This record is leaner than stuff I have done in the past. Pound for pound this record is focused. I didn’t have a band when I began writing it, so I was able to develop a clear vision of where it would start and how it would travel.   

C&I: You got to work with Josh Collazo and Seth Ford-Young of Edward Sharp & The Magnetic Zeros. What was that like, and what did they bring to the album?
Mangione: We also worked with Matt Linesch (Linny), Edward Sharpe's engineer and co-producer. It was great. We have gotten to know those guys through shows and they have the greatest ratio of people in a band that are kind. Everyone is so nice and helpful in every way. Josh and I were friends first and he brought Linny and Seth in. There was no time wasted with egos or ability. We met and were off to the races. They brought fresh ideas and they have a catalog that I love and respect. I never asked, “How did you get that ESMZ sound, how can we do that?!” But I never worried if it snuck in there. It’s a pretty great thing they got.

C&I: How do you go about songwriting? Melody or the lyrics first?
Mangione: [It] usually starts with a guitar part married to a melody. But this record was unique for me in that I wrote most of it on drums first. I was really into some great rhythmic albums when I was writing. I am a drummer first, so when I started writing I wanted to develop and protect the groove of each track. I would record drums and then write over it. 

C&I: You have many different instruments that take the forefront on this album, like the violin and cello. How has this versatility in your instrumentation contributed to your style? Do you build songs around your instruments?
Mangione: I usually build songs around the basic progression and vocal melody (for this record, however, after the drums were established). What I love about this instrumentation is that we have multiple melodic forces to work with. Between my voice, my brother’s guitar, the strings, and the harmonies, we have many melodic options to make a memorable statement. So I can establish vocals, and if I want to take the ear somewhere else, I don’t have to sing it — I can have the strings do it or my brother’s lead guitar can do it. It just opens up the ear to a lot of options without being too hook-focused.  

C&I: What was your overall vision for But I’ve Seen the Stars and, with such a wide range of talent on the album, how did you all work together to develop its distinct sound?
Mangione: The vision was to create a whole record that covers the spectrum of one color. Cohesive, thorough, and never stagnant. A sonic journey on the same trail.

C&I: Did you always want to be a musician, or is it a career you fell into? If not, what would you be doing instead?
Mangione: Yeah, I studied environmental science in school, but it was always music for me. I have no idea what else I would do. I love comedy, so maybe be a stand-up comedian. I am really, really, really, really funny.

C&I: Is there a song on But I’ve Seen the Stars that you are most proud of?
Mangione: It changes with each listen, but consistently “Three Days.” It started so differently and we had a midsession changeup. I was really nervous at the time, but it came out better. Victory! 

C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make the album that we can expect sometime in the near future?
Mangione: Yes, always.   

C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring? Any places you're excited to play?
Mangione: There will be touring. I am always playing. I expect more full-band shows. There are some festivals that I look forward to getting back to.

C&I: Lastly, you’ve traveled quite a bit in your career. You lived in your car for a year and a half performing through the U.S. in your van before settling back to Milwaukee. Any favorite stories about that period?
Mangione:  We had to follow [blues piano player] Pinetop Perkins once at Buddy Guy’s venue in Chicago, which was hard to mentally prepare for since he is such a legend in my world. After thinking through it and getting myself to a good mental space, I walked toward the stage entrance and was stopped by security. I quickly said, “I’m the band. I am playing!” He looked right at me and said, “No you ain’t. Buddy wants to play a few.” Buddy Guy then got up and played two songs. Then we had to play. It was the night Buddy Guy opened up for us.

For more information on Mike Mangione & The Kin and to preorder their new album, visit their website.